Monday, August 24, 2020

Review: The Map of Salt and Stars

I try to learn as a little about a book as possible before I start it. Heck, I'll skip the author's introduction just to start chapter one with a blank slate. And yet, the two words I did catch in the description of The Map of Salt and Stars: A Novel by Zeyn Joukhadar were enough to conjure an entire plot. The two words: Syrian and Refugee.

From these two words I envisioned how the story would go: the main character(s) would be living in Syria, get displaced by war and end up in a refugee camp. He/She/They would toil there while the world ignored them.

I realized part way through the book what helped inspire this notion: ads by Patrick Stewart on YouTube. Apparently those ads made quite the impact on me. Between the ads and other stories I've heard, my vision of being a refugee was all about being passive. You remain in limbo, dependent on others, while the word moves on.

I truly enjoyed The Map, and even more so because I went into the text blind. So I don't want to ruin this book for you. But I will say, the plot I imagined above couldn't have been more wrong. Whereas I imagined a static plot, Joukhadar brought the opposite: plenty of heroic action. What a while ride The Map turned out to be.

I found the lyrical nature of the book to be a bit confusing at first, but I'm glad I stuck with it. My suggestion is to go read (or, do as I did and listen to) the book and then come back and read my comments below. They aren't anything Earth shattering, but I can't help but lay out a number of elements of Joukhadar's novel that caught my attention.

Spoilers Below

Joukhadar's use of a 12 year old American girl to serve as the protagonist was inspired. She provided precisely the naive perspective that someone like myself, unfamiliar with Middle East politics and customs, would have. And the decision to give her Synesthesia made not only for a useful poetic device, but was a clever super-power. And the interleaving of modern and historic adventures, that truly made this an outstanding read.

I found myself quite moved by the modern story. The bombing of Nour's family left me stunned. One imagines that residents in a city filled with unrest have a choice; stay or go? And when you do go, you at least have some time to pick which items you'll take with you. But the bombing shows how wrong headed this thinking is. One moment there's a family with a home and possessions, and the next there's nothing but destruction and pain. As I played the scenario over in my head I found myself stuck. What's the right way to respond to this impossible crisis? Nour and her family prove to be inspirational: you take what you can and move towards something better. The situation may be impossible, but giving up is even less of an option.

And that moment on the ferry where time stops; that moment nearly brought me to tears, something I can't recall a book ever doing. Like I said, a wild ride.

Sure, there's a few aspects of the plot I could quibble with. When the family has to separate, why all the secrecy? Wouldn't you want your daughters to know the name of the city and family member they are seeking out? Isn't that everything? The map is clever and full of symbolism, but it seems woefully impractical. And the plot lost a bit of steam at the end when we find Nour busting out of a facility that would let her sister come and go as she pleased. Still, these are minor quirks.

Overall, The Map of Salt and Stars delivers not one, but two epic tales. And while it shows a dark and troubling aspect of our humanity, it also shows  the power hope and moving forward. Perhaps most importantly, the book has inspired me to dig deeper into the subject. Now I'd like to read the true accounts of actual Syrian refugees to see what parts of the story are fanciful and what parts are realistic.


  1. As a regfugee of war myself, I can tell you that staying is usually the wrong option so they got that right at least.

  2. @Shaban - Thanks for sharing. Do you mind sharing any of your story?

    And why the link to It makes your comment look like spam?